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How To Identify And Manage Overstimulation

Posted on December 1, 2023 by Henry Ford Health Staff
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Let’s imagine a typical workday. Maybe you listened to a podcast while driving the kids to school. Then you answered some emails during a Zoom call. Between calls, you showed the plumber a small drip in your upstairs bathroom. At the end of the day, you worked on a quick document as you watched your kid’s soccer game. People next to you ask about the bake sale you forgot you said you’d participate in. Meanwhile, phone notifications ping loudly.  

If this sounds familiar, you might be overstimulated. “We can only do one thing at a time. We overload and overstimulate our brains when we try to do too much at once,” says Lisa MacLean, M.D., a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health. “Chronic overstimulation can make you feel stressed out, burned out and unable to cope with stressors. Over time, it will impact your interactions with your family and your ability to do your job.”

It's possible to lessen overstimulation—and it starts with understanding how it happens. “When you understand the root of that overstimulation you might be feeling, you can take steps to reduce it,” explains Dr. MacLean. 

What Is Overstimulation?  

Sometimes your brain can’t handle everything you give it and ask it to accomplish. Dr. MacLean points to many everyday things that can add up, causing mental and physical overload:

“It can feel like you have too many tabs opened on your mental browser and your brain doesn’t know what to do,” she explains. As things pile up, you may find your to-do list fills you with dread, small chores feel bigger than they are or your weekly obligations seem impossible to meet.

What the brain does with that overload looks different for everyone. Toddlers can have temper tantrums, while adults might find themselves in the middle of an emotional outburst. “We may feel tired or cry more easily. We might freeze or shut down and find it hard to problem-solve,” says Dr. MacLean. 

Other signs of overstimulation include:

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  • Aggression or irritability
  • Feeling fearful or tearful
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Muscle tension or stiffness
  • Poor concentration or focus
  • Sleeplessness or fatigue

How Has Overstimulation Changed?

Dr. MacLean points to two recent changes that may contribute to modern-day overstimulation: Our home offices and phone screens. 

Working from home  

The pandemic greatly expanded our remote workforce, and for many people, home became the office. While working from home is convenient, it’s also an opportunity to spend more time with things that overstimulate us, whether it’s a deadline or a messy floor. 

“Remote working eliminated that boundary between work and home. There’s no downtime and people are always on,” says Dr. MacLean. She encourages finding the off switch. 

“People can only really focus for about 30 minutes at a time. Then the brain reaches capacity and needs a five-minute break. When you build in breaks, your brain is more effective. Consider these short windows a healthy way to treat your body and brain,” Dr. MacLean says. 

When work is over, take longer breaks and spend time participating in an enjoyable activity like reading, walking in nature, talking to friends or exercising. 

Technology 

We have 24/7 access to our phones, email, social media and video games. No matter where we are, we can work, keep in touch with friends and enjoy entertainment. While this connectivity is beneficial in many ways, it also makes it easy to get overstimulated.

“I’m guilty of getting overstimulated on technology, too,” Dr. MacLean admits. “I’m watching TV while I’m on Instagram and online shopping. Technology is great but our brains need time to decompress. It’s not always healthy to stay constantly hooked in.”

6 Tips For Managing Sensory Overload

Just like your phone, if you have too many apps open in your brain, it’s going to drain the battery. “Overstimulation is our brain saying it’s time to close some of those tabs,” says Dr. MacLean.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or overloaded, try:

  1. Removing yourself from the situation
  2. Finding a quiet space
  3. Practicing mindfulness and relaxation exercises, including deep breathing
  4. Getting good sleep
  5. Taking care of your daily health with sunshine, movement and good nutrition
  6. Reducing technology usage when you can 

Dr. MacLean also urges people to advocate for themselves. “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. If you need the lights turned off, the music turned down or want complete silence, say that to the people around you. It will help you take those steps to reduce overstimulation. And if you feel stressed and overwhelmed all the time, talk to a mental health professional.”


Reviewed by Lisa MacLean, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in adult ADHD treatment at Henry Ford Behavioral Services in Detroit. She is the director of physician wellness for Henry Ford Health, using her expertise to help doctors optimize wellness and find balance by teaching them healthy coping strategies so they can better serve their patients. 

Categories : FeelWell
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